| She stood there in that pool of striped light, disheveled and sweating in that early April afternoon, with a fury that seemed unquenchable.
She came in after numerous calls, her head through the door, an impish grin spread on her pert lips. I beckoned and she stepped through the door and into the light shed by the single pane jalousie window overhead. The wide striped light set her dark brown hair aflame, turning the strands into deep reds and chestnut.
She grinned at me, her eight-year-old eyes alive with secrets and all sorts of accomplished mischief. Sweat glistened on her tanned shoulders and made the yellow cotton of her summer dress cling to her gravel-stained knees. As usual, there was a cut on one of her legs, nothing too deep, and close to healing, despite the absence of first aid, fussing alcohol swabs and antiseptic solutions. Dirt clung to her hands and burrowed under her fingernails. She stood there in that pool of striped light, disheveled and sweating in that early April afternoon, with a fury that seemed unquenchable.
I pursed my lips in that perfunctory adult way, giving her my best disapproving look.
"Well, Doña, were you waiting for us to scream ourselves hoarse before you decided it was time for merienda? Hala, go wash your hands; you look like a street urchin. And look at that wound! What would your mother say if she saw you like this? She might think we don't take care of you enough!" I nagged with this and similar other diatribes, making sure not to pause for air.
If anything, her grin grew wider as she skipped to follow orders. Outside, the other children, her playmates, didn't cease in their friendly catcalls and teasing. They sounded like they were playing Agawan Base, with shouts of "Don't get caught!" and "Save!" along with the pounding of feet on asphalt. Careless laughter permeated the humid air, drowning out even the whirr of the electric fan as it tirelessly displaced warm air around the room. The smell of hot cooking oil, sugar and bananas wafted from the kitchen, mingling with the rich scent of the kapeng barako I had set down on my writing table, my third cup of the day.
She emerged from the restroom her hands and legs clean, and even her face washed. A diagonal slant of crimson glowed contrastingly on her brown leg. A fresh wound, ignored by its bearer. We sat at the dining table across from each other while the maids served hot turon and Coke. We chewed the delicacies in silence. She had her eyes trained on me, as if wishing to know something. I responded with a questioning look.
"What is it?"
She hesitated, but only for a moment. “Ate, when are you going back?"
I laughed, thinking of poker-faced sarcasm and the irony that have since infused all the communications I have had. But there was no sarcasm in the question, only an honest curiosity. Still, I couldn't resist. "Why? Are you tired of me? Do you want me to go back already?"
| Whispered conversations in family gatherings seemed to suggest that her father was an ambassador of sorts. Of this I could not be certain; my aunt never talked about her father.
She shook her head at this vehemently, her features contorted in the consternation that I would take her question the wrong way. But she saw that I was laughing, and relaxed.
I was home for Spring break. Whenever I answered the usual questions of what I was doing home, I was always met with surprised, and mildly impressed, looks.
"Spring break?" relatives, friends, friends of friends, neighbors and local tsismosas would repeat the words, as if tasting them.
"Well," I would attempt to clarify, "More like extended Spring break. I don't have anything planned for the week after that, so I'd be staying here for two weeks instead of one."
"And do the flowers really only bloom during Spring? Are they really very pretty?"
"Uh. It's never really dead winter in California. It's a bit greener during that time, though."
"No winter?" They would frown, "So you mean there's no snow?"
"Just in high places," I would answer almost apologetically.
"What's Spring?" my cousin asked, the first time she heard me and her mother talking about it. That was three days ago.
"It's a season," her mother responded while folding clothes into a large suitcase. "It's the time of year when the snow melts and plants start growing again. It's when the flowers bloom most beautifully."
My aunt had traveled a lot when she was younger, before she met and married my uncle. Whispered conversations in family gatherings seemed to suggest that her father was an ambassador of sorts. Of this I could not be certain; my aunt never talked about her father.
"In here we only have tag-ulan and tag-araw. Dry and wet seasons."
She said those last sentences a bit ruefully, as if disappointed.
"But flowers here bloom beautifully the year round," my cousin quipped a bit snootily, as if sensing her mom's dissatisfaction.
"True," I laughed.
My aunt left for Manila that afternoon, leaving us alone with the house help who acquired the disconcerting habit of blending into the shadows. When I lived in the house, the help were always so gregarious, laughing and gossiping, and in at least one memorable occasion, even going so far as to give out the house phone number to the boys who loiter around the street corner.
"So, when are you going back?" my cousin asked again as she sat at the piano later that evening, trailing staccato notes with her small fingers.
| I had kapeng barako, inhaling its earthy aroma as I swirled the rich dark liquid in my mug. I smacked my lips after every sip, earning strange looks from the help as she cleared the breakfast dishes.
I had a friend over and we were locked in the psychological duel of pusoy dos, our noses stuck into the reds and blacks of shiny plastic cards, while smoke curled from the tips of half-smoked Marlboro Lights, sitting lonely on the flat ashtray, twin embers gradually dying out. My friend looked up, fixing me with an inquiring look. I responded by throwing the King of Diamonds onto the thickening pile of flushes and full houses.
"Mama said you have to go back to school next month," she said doggedly, intent on getting an answer this time.
“Oo nga naman, undergrad, you still have to go back to that snooty American university of yours," my friend, a freshly graduated and celebrated bum, teased. He threw an Ace of Cloves on top of the King, covering its royal face so only the red diamond of its suit was visible.
I gave him a small smile, glancing at the Two of Diamonds I held in one hand. "You sure you don't wanna go higher?"
"Why can't you just go to school here?" came the small girlish whine as I threw the card down with a triumphant Ha!
“Anak ng tupa. Swerte ng stateside! " my friend cursed, gathering the cards, reshuffling them.
"Hmph," I pouted, putting the cigarette between my lips, "you're lucky we're not playing for anything."
"Just pride. And you know how highly I value mine," he replied, distributing the cards into four decks, face down.
"This is awesome. You," I intoned, my excitement mounting as a Full Nine showed up in my hand, "are awesome. You know at home I don't really have anyone to play pusoy with."
He gave me a strange expression. "You're already home."
He dismissed the protest with a wave of his hand. Just as well, because I didn't really know what to say.
We played another round. I let him win.
I chased the bum out of the house, bullying him for freeloading off this household and bumming cigarettes and shouting to his retreating back that he better have a job when I come back, for all the neighborhood to hear.
I smiled at my cousin, eight-years-old and already so pretty.
"Time for bed," I announced, taking her hand and leading her upstairs and into her room. From her bed she scowled as I turned off the lights.
The next morning she wouldn't even look at me. I shrugged and went about my business as usual. I played scales and arpeggios on the antique piano, relishing the feel of soft keys under my fingertips. I had kapeng barako, inhaling its earthy aroma as I swirled the rich dark liquid in my mug. I smacked my lips after every sip, earning strange looks from the help as she cleared the breakfast dishes.
By noon, my cousin was tired of ignoring me and took to following me around the house. I, for my part, missed games. Finally, she ran up in front of me, blocking my way. She stood with her arms akimbo, looking very forbidding.
| City lights have always made stars scarce in San Francisco, and scarcer still in Los Angeles, but here, right here, I could truly believe that the stars are infinite in number.
“Ate ." she whined, petulantly, unhappy at being ignored. She planted her feet on the antique marble floor, mopped clean with bleach early this morning by the help.
"What is it?" I asked patiently, feigning ignorance at the source of her distress.
"You haven't answered my question," she dragged the last syllable out, indicating her displeasure.
I bent down, resting my hands on my knees so we were face-to-face. "But didn't you hear last night? I told your Kuya he'd better have a job when I come back ."
Her eyes suddenly lit up with understanding, but dimmed again at the implication of my words.
"But when are you going to come back? Is it going to take long?" and after a minute, "Can't you just stay here?"
I straightened up then, and thought about how much time I had left. I thought about the suitcase that needed to be filled with the array of clothes I had collected in my short stay, colorful thin fabrics that can only find use in the warmest days of the San Francisco summer. I squirmed at the thought of security lines and hours of waiting in international airports, coupled with the paranoia that I might have left my passport in the last overpriced cafe I patronized. I thought of the feel of the cool wind of an open cafe window. I thought of all the times I spent looking at the Golden Gate Bridge, its picturesque pillars glinting in the sun as I held a mug of Peet's coffee in one hand, and a pen pressed to paper in the other.
Then my thoughts wandered to the night before when, after tucking my cousin in, I wandered out the front door and into the night. In the front yard was an old jeep, rarely used, its keys dangling in the ignition. I clambered up onto its roof and lay on it, with arms behind my head, just looking up. It wasn't a full moon and that was okay, for that night, it was the stars that I came to see. I allowed myself to breathe in the clear night air and let the enormity of the night sky engulf me and make me feel helpless. City lights have always made stars scarce in San Francisco, and scarcer still in Los Angeles, but here, right here, I could truly believe that the stars are infinite in number. It was very late when I finally got up and went back into the house and even when I was in bed I didn't close my eyes. Instead I listened to the song of the crickets as it pierced the soothing darkness.
Now, standing in front of my pleading cousin, I felt goose bumps on my arms as the recollection of last night assaulted me.
"I can't stay," I whispered, "But I promise I'll always come back."
My last day in the province, I woke before daybreak. I tiptoed around the kitchen, making sure not to wake the help as I made hot chocolate from dried cocoa seeds supposedly reserved for special occasions. It was a rare treat, even in the Philippines . Pouring the hot liquid into a thermos, I tiptoed to my cousin's bedroom and woke her up. She looked unfocused at first, but in seeing me, formed her mouth into a protest before I shushed her. Motioning for her to be quiet, I led her out of the house. I turned the key in the old Jeep's ignition and was surprised at the purring sound its engine made. I rolled down the windows and backed out of the front yard and onto the street. After turning a few street corners, I inserted a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD into the stereo and turned it up loud.
My cousin, now fully awake, stared at me. I grinned at her.
"What was the point of not disturbing anyone in the house when you're going to wake up the whole baranggay anyway?" she screamed over the heavy guitar riffs.
I turned the volume down a bit. "What?"
"I heard you," I screamed back as I turned the volume up louder. She rolled her eyes and threw her hands heavenward.
A few minutes later I turned the engine off. We had arrived at the beach. The splash of waves against the sand seemed magnified in the silence that followed drums and guitars. It was still dark.
I ran out of the Jeep, thermos in hand, skipping on the dark sandy pebbles that made up the beach, pausing only when I reached the water. My cousin ran after me, now giggling excitedly.
"Yes!" I exulted into the air as we danced back from the waves threatening to drench us with freezing salt water.
Just then we heard the first rooster announce the daybreak and as if on cue, the sun made its presence known, coloring the purple sky with shades of orange.
I unscrewed the cap of the thermos and took a hearty swig before passing the drink to my cousin. The warm sweet liquid neutralized the taste of the salty air on my lips, burning my throat and settling in my stomach, warming me all over.
My cousin looked at the thermos.
"Are there cocoa trees in the States?"
I laughed, while seriously thinking about it, "I don't know. No. Not a lot."
Without another word she handed the drink back to me, before rushing to meet the frothy ocean.
The sun rose fully then, its early morning rays pricking my exposed legs, the salty winds sending chills up my arms. Tomorrow at this time, it would be dark where I'll be. I would be lying in bed, straining for just a hint of cricket song, my eyes drawn to the moon half covered by clouds and the curtain, my tongue almost tasting the earthy sweetness of salt water and chocolate and my skin missing the prick of the hot, humid tropical air.
© Soleil David